Affirmative Action as a Majoritarian Device: Or, Do You Really Want To Be a Role Model?

Have you ever noticed how affirmative action occupies a place in our system of law and politics far out of proportion to its effects in the real world? Liberals love talking about and sitting on committees that define, oversee, defend, and give shape to it. Conservatives are attached to the concept for different reasons: they can rail against it, declare it lacking in virtue and principle, and use it to rally the troops. Affirmative action is something they love to hate. The program also generates a great deal of paper, conversation, and jobs probably more of the latter for persons of the majority persuasion than it has for its intended beneficiaries. Yet, despite its rather meager accomplishments and dubious lineage, a number of us have jumped on the bandwagon, maybe because it seemed one of the few that would let us on.

But should we? Lately, I have been having doubts, as have other writers of color. In this essay I examine several of the reasons why. First, I address some doubts about affirmative action generally. Then I focus on the role model argument, a component of affirmative action that until recently has received less scrutiny than it deserves. I explain the majority group’s attraction to the role model argument, but urge professionals of color to reject that approach in favor of other, more liberating relations between themselves and their communities.